A Night Jungle Patrol Under Fire
By CHARLES BLACK
Ledger-Enquirer Military Writer
Word had come to us on the radio just as the task force drove up in jeeps, supported by three Marine Corps tanks, to the far edge of a river - the 101st Airborne’s 52nd had landed in a “buzz saw” in the valley beyond a high mountain range ahead of us and the plans were changed. A forced march commenced by fording the river in water which was swift, cold and in one place swimming depth.
The tanks found a place to cross after the task force had walked about three miles down river, clearing three villages and sending six suspected Viet Cong prisoners back by helicopter for questioning. They met us in a rice paddy and attempted to hurry the progress by loading Lt. Willie Wilson’s A troop of Task Force Hansen on the tank decks and moving ahead. The 20 fruitless minutes spent searching for a path the tanks could use was the only break of the day and it was welcome, but an M-48 has little to recommend it off the road in a country which is either rice paddy or mountain terrain. We piled off them very little further ahead as they came to a steep gully which cut them off from any further progress and moved into the brush again in single file.
A company of Montagnards with their Special Forces advisers had crossed here and fell in behind Task Force Hansen. The little tiger-suited soldiers, some of them looking only 15 years old, carried M-1 rifles, Browning automatic rifles, heavy mortars, etc., and one even had a sewing machine slung around his neck, souvenir of a village they had just searched on the other side of the river.
The ford they used was only knee deep and we could see our vehicles parked there -- causing some bitter comment from the troops who had walked very fast in brush and heat down the other side of the river parallel to the trail where the jeeps and tanks had come.
All we had to do was get on the jeeps, ride down here and wade on over, but they wanted those villages secured and they wanted us to move in close to the base of the ridge to stop any Viet Cong movements along here, I guess,” S-Sgt. Joseph A. Garcia said as we sweated and fought through the thorns and underbrush.
The pace set up front was brutal and the heat was very bad. We got water from a creek once and we ate some C-rations on the move and there was the time every man felt on a particularly bad slope that he wouldn’t make it, but nobody fell out. It went on by noon, finally at 2 p.m. a short break came when we found another little creek on a mountain side and filled canteens. The third platoon had to run to catch up, however, as any halt was begrudged and this one had taken about 15 minutes.
Capt. Gillette and I were walking at the rear of the column then and we missed seeing the platoon leave. The Special Forces Company came up and we let them go by, thinking that they were going in a different route, and then it was very quiet.
“I believe we are a two-man patrol, Charlie,” Capt. Gillette said suddenly.
We spent 30 minutes playing Daniel Boone and tracking the departed troops and finally overhauled the last man of A Troop after about five despairing crises when we made false turns. It was the last time I had any inclination to stray from a spot directly behind SFC Roy Rodriguez, the platoon sergeant.
I passed a notebook along the line and got these names from the men I was with: Sgt. Clayton E. Smith, Sp-4 Roscoe C. Lipscomb, S-Sgt. Harold B. Campbell, Sgt. Edward J. Laria, Sgt. Richard A. Stroke, Sp-4 Clyde Wilson, Sp-4 James L. Howard, Sp-4 George E. Rutledge, Sgt. George T. Carter, Sp4 Fred Banks, PFC Victor Lopez, SFC Marion Nicholson, PFC Anthony P. Garcia, Sp-4 Billy I. Howard, Sp-4 Kipi McMoore, PFC Bobby W. Sykes, PFC Raymond W. Hylland, Sp-4 Jerry Large, PFC Phillip Morris, PFC George T. Cummings and the platoon leader, Lt. Rick Dean.
It cost, every man of them some precious energy to scribble in the notebook as they carried their weapons and fought through brush to keep up and the notebook is sweaty and dirty where it was handed up the line and back down again.
About 5:30 p.m. a radio message came from the Montagnard advisers that those troops couldn’t go any further and would have to halt in a little clearing we had just passed. We were going over the very toughest part of the march now, the trail was only a path batted down by the men up front through thorny brush and it was all uphill with mud underfoot making each step tougher. It got dark and the thorns became vicious. All of us were cut and punctured by them. There are big thorns and little thorns on plants here.
About 7:30 p.m. it commenced raining and in the deep, jungly growth we were walking in, it was impossible to see the man in front. I held onto Sgt. Rodriguez’ web suspenders with one hand. Sp4 Lipscomb held onto a poncho roll I was carrying. We had crossed a small stream and stumbled and fought up the slope beyond it when we heard firing and then a “thunk” and a bright flash came in the gully we had just left, just a few yards away from us.
“Hit the ground,” Rodriguez yelled.
We hurtled into the brush uphill from the flash and an explosion came down there. There was a period of realizing that whatever it was, it had missed me, and then people commenced whispering questions.
“Grenade, I think, but where from?” Sgt. Rodriguez said.
It was too close. We simply lay in the west brush, peering uselessly at darkness and waited, finally getting slowly back onto the path and blundering into each other until we were in line.
The platoon was left behind, the other groups had cleared this bad place and had gone on across an open field in a hurry after answering the sniper fire. We got to the edge of the field and could see nothing more than we had before. Somebody up about 100 yards fired a tracer up the mountain side. We saw a red flare back to our rear and then we moved on out into the field to where the tracer had been fired. We found the troops by walking into them.
There was a conference and Sgt. Rodriguez felt his way back along the line, whispering to me as he came by.
“There is a company of the 327th here. We were running to link up with them. That closes the line. We set up here until in the morning and then we go over the mountain,” he said.
I don’t know if there was firing during the night. Sgt. Smith said there was a fight on our left where another unit of Task Force Hansen had arrived. I know that Sgt. Rodriguez and I snapped our ponchos together and lay in the rain until somebody nudged me at 4:30 a.m. and we started up the mountain, still in the dark, stiffer and lamer but somewhat rested.
We got up there by daybreak and saw what seemed to be all of the artillery in Viet Nam slamming shells into the floor of the valley. A small ridge separated us from the place where the paratroopers were just finishing their fight as more men walked down to help them and this ridge - the high ground where the VC had located mortars and machine guns, was being smashed with shells. Four airplanes, sky raids with big loads, were smashing at a target toward the coast. I could look down the valley and see the ocean and the big hill at Ky Son where the other end of this Viet Cong complex was believed to be located and there were helicopters and aircraft over all of it.
We didn’t stop on the ridge but walked along its height, extending the line until it was almost a continuous ring of .men around the valley where the Viet Cong’s 95th .Battalion was being wiped out. We moved down off the hill and over onto the next hill about noon and I saw the last of the four downed helicopters being lifted out by a First Air Cavalry Division Chinook. A company of the 327th came up the other side of the hill and met us at the crest. I linked up with PVC James C. Beene, PFC Floyd R. Hedgecock, PFC Roy R. Newman and Sp4 Albert K. Kaaleic, all of Co. B, here and they said they had been in a firefight which had shot up seven VC and taken three prisoners.
We had taken six prisoners along the crest of the hill and had combed through half a dozen little camps the Viet Cong had used the night before after they had broken out of the village where the battle had been only to find the passes cut off. There was only some sniper fire and a few automatic hand weapons being heard from the Viet Cong now as the aircraft and artillery hammered at them.
The toll was finally tallied at 226 bodies found, left in hasty graves or in the open by the Viet Cong while U. S. forces had what were officially described as light casualties. The only heavy casualties came among the few brave paratroopers who had landed on top of the Viet Cong headquarters at the village and who had outfought them there. We had men taken out by helicopter because they couldn’t walk any more, of course but there weren’t any enemy-inflicted wounds in Task Force Hansen.
A night spent on the hill went by with little action except from flares and artillery fire, then we walked ten miles down the valley to a road, caught jeeps and I left the group with Capt. Gillette when he called in a friendly helicopter pilot from the First Battalion Ninth Cavalry who got us back to the division base at An Khe just in time for some of SFC J. L. Shrakey’s fine chow served up by Sp5 James Dunham, the chief cook. It was a good way to end the trip.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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